Rafael Nadal made a debut in Monte Carlo in 2003 at 16, qualifying for the main draw and beating Karol Kucera and Albert Costa to enter the last 16. The youngster repeated that a few weeks later in Hamburg, establishing himself as one of the players to beat on the slowest surface in the years to come.
In 2004, Nadal claimed his first ATP title in Sopot, missing the spring clay-court swing due to an injury and hoping to improve that a year later, especially after two ATP titles on clay in Brazil and Mexico. Carried by that boost, Rafa reached the Miami final, losing to Roger Federer in five sets and standing as one of the favorites for the Monte Carlo title.
In his second appearance in the Principality, Nadal brought his A-game to oust Gael Monfils, Xavier Malisse, Olivier Rochus and the defending Roland Garros champion Gaston Gaudio in straight sets to advance into the semis.
Rafael Nadal advanced to his second straight Masters 1000 final in Monte Carlo 2005.
There, Rafa had to dig deep against his coeval Richard Gasquet, beating the Frenchman 6-7, 6-4, 6-3 in two hours and 45 minutes for the second consecutive Masters 1000 final.
Gasquet qualified for the main draw and saved three match points against Roger Federer in the quarters, gathering a boost and wishing for more of the same against Nadal. The Frenchman looked like a player on a mission, stealing the first set against the Spaniard (was 5-4 and 6-5 down) and building an early lead in set number two to mount the pressure on the other side of the net.
With no room for errors, Nadal bounced back to take the second set 6-4, settling into a nice rhythm and having the upper hand in the decider to cross the finish line first and earn another chance to fight for the Masters 1000 trophy.
After the encounter, Rafael Nadal said he didn't consider himself the world's best clay-courter, mentioning Carlos Moya, Guillermo Coria, Juan Carlos Ferrero and Gaston Gaudio as his main rivals in the weeks to come.
"I can't tell if Richard and I would form a rivalry; Carlos Moya, Guillermo Coria, Juan Carlos Ferrero, Gaston Gaudio and others are all playing well. I don't think I'm the best player on clay. Coria won the title here a year ago and in the final in Hamburg and Roland Garros.
He is among the best, together with Ferrero, Gaudio, Moya. It will not be easy to beat Coria in the final; I hope to play like in Miami and have a chance to fight for the trophy," Rafael Nadal said.